A photo caption with this article about impressions of the Iraq war in Samarra misstated the rank of a U.S. soldier pictured on duty in the Iraqi city. Kristopher Shea Byrd is a private first class, not a specialist.
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Ernesto Londono -- Iraqi city Samarra reflects successes, shortfalls in Iraq
In Samarra and across Iraq, the Americans won over erstwhile enemies and crippled cells of extremists they deemed "irreconcilable." They redrew the power structure, injected billions into the economy, and trained and equipped a vast Iraqi security apparatus that, while wobbly and disjointed, has in many ways exceeded expectations.
In crucial cities such as Samarra, the central government set up security centers that reported to Baghdad.
Provincial and municipal authorities, particularly those in heavily Sunni areas ignored by the Shiite-led Baghdad government, grew dependent on U.S. funds and expertise. They remain so today, even as the money and manpower start to dwindle. Samarra's mayor has no public budget, carries a revolver to work and, albeit graciously, punts more questions than he answers when the subject turns to security, politics and life after the American withdrawal. He's happy, though, to talk about how much the Americans have done for his city.
Other leaders are more blunt. "All those top leaders in power now, they each have an army on standby," said Wasim Hamad Hawas, the self-described founder of the first resistance group that fought the Americans in Samarra, only to eventually make amends and get on the U.S. payroll. "They will fight us as soon as the Americans aren't standing in the middle."
As Whitehurst and some of his men walked around the city shortly before leaving, residents flocked over, clamoring for micro grants, bundles of cash the U.S. military has handed out to thousands of Iraqis in recent years to jump-start local economies.
Even though Whitehurst was with one of his Iraqi Army counterparts, residents turned to him and his captains, identifiable by their rank patches, to air grievances.
Iraqi soldiers and police officers are omnipresent in Samarra these days. They respond buoyantly when asked about their readiness to keep things calm after the Americans leave.
"People don't like seeing American soldiers walking in the cities," said Gen. Rashid Muhammed Zahir, head of the Samarra operations command, who has warm relations with the Americans. "They want to see the Americans just stay in one or two bases."
But some U.S. soldiers express skepticism about how well the Iraqis will do when they're on their own. "They have the tools to protect their country. They have the equipment and the training," said 1st Sgt. Jeremiah Conachan, 33, of Milwaukie, Ore. "I just don't know if they have the heart. . . . The sun comes up; it's 8 in the morning. You can get an hour of work from these guys, and then they're done -- done for the day."
Was it worth it?
I posed that question to several of Whitehurst's men in August during a visit to their outpost near Samarra, which is now closed. Many said it was. Children no longer throw rocks at Americans. Attacks against U.S. troops are as low as they've ever been. They were leaving behind schools and clinics and small businesses that the soldiers hope years from now will be the cornerstone of the American legacy in Iraq.
There were skeptics in the crowd, too.